Perhaps nowhere else could such a road sign have been born.
A ghostly silhouette of a mother, father and little girl running, their bodies leaning forward as if into the wind. The child’s pigtails fly behind her as the family dashes across a stark yellow background, accompanied by one word: CAUTION.
Caltrans posted several of these signs along San Diego freeways beginning in 1990, when the city was a funnel for undocumented immigrants headed north. The signs were intended to warn drivers they might encounter people frantically darting across lanes of traffic as they tried to evade border security.
Dozens of immigrants were struck and killed from the mid-1980s to early 1990s, some in front of horrified family members, as stunned drivers failed to stop in time.
The freeway deaths ended long ago, but the signs remain. And, in the intervening years, the silhouetted image has quietly taken on a life of its own.
Today, the running family is found on T-shirts, coffee mugs, stickers, book covers and CDs, in fine art and even hanging in an exhibit at the Smithsonian.
The characters have been reinterpreted carrying surfboards and wearing Pilgrim hats. One depiction shows them being followed by a man with a gun.
The image has become a Rorschach test for how people feel about illegal immigration and immigrants in general. Some have claimed it as a symbol of Latino identity. Others wear it as a badge of anti-immigrant sentiment.
“It has become an icon that signals immigration and the political issues surrounding immigration, which are far from resolved in our society,” said Otto Santa Ana, a professor of Chicano studies at UCLA.
And yet some see it as nothing more than a quirky regional souvenir.
“Come to San Diego,” one T-shirt reads. “Bring your family.”
The assignment to create the road sign landed on the desk of Caltrans graphic artist John Hood in the late 1980s. He was asked to design an image that, in the blink of an eye, would alert drivers to the unexpected sight of pedestrians in their headlights.
Text signs that had been posted on Interstates 5 and 805 near the border, urging “Caution Watch for People Crossing Road,” proved too wordy to register with motorists. Meanwhile, close to 100 undocumented immigrants had been killed on county freeways over a five-year span.
One particularly deadly spot was on Interstate 5 at Camp Pendleton, south of the Border Patrol checkpoint. Immigrant smugglers would stop their vehicles and order everyone out, instructing them to cross the freeway toward the beach. The idea was for the immigrants to walk north and then, once they had skirted the checkpoint, cross the freeway again to the vehicle, which would be waiting on the other side.
People who had never seen a freeway were crossing up to eight lanes of traffic, often at night, with little idea how fast the tiny, distant headlights they saw would be upon them.
Parents were killed in front of their children, children in front of parents. Drivers who hit these people were left emotionally wrecked. One was haunted by the sight of an anguished face flying across the windshield. Another swore he had hit a bear.
Before Hood began drawing the sign, he and his supervisors met with Highway Patrol officers and saw photos of accident scenes. What got to him most were the deaths that involved families.
“Graphically, I wanted to show a family,” said Hood, who lives in San Diego. He chose to include a pigtailed girl, rather than a boy, because “there is something about a little girl running across with her parents that we are more affected by.”
Imagination at work
At first he drew detailed figures, with faces that showed “a little bit of fright.” But, in the end, Hood and his supervisors decided on a silhouette.
“When you are looking through headlights, that is what you see,” Hood said, “an outline of the image itself.”
As he sketched, Hood tried to imagine the despair that might drive such a family across the border and onto a forbidding foreign highway.
He drew from his own experience fighting in Vietnam, where he had seen families run for their lives as villages were attacked. He remembered stories his Navajo parents had told him about ancestors who died trying to escape as U.S. soldiers marched them onto reservations.
The drawing was finished in a week. Even without faces, the characters conveyed a sense of urgency in their flight.
“It doesn’t just mean they are running across the freeway,” Hood said. “It means they are running from something else as well. I think it’s a struggle for a lot of things, for opportunities, for freedom.”
The first signs were unveiled in September 1990 at Camp Pendleton. Almost immediately, reaction came from all sides. Some Latinos felt insulted by the faceless silhouettes, which they found reminiscent of animal-crossing signs. Anti-illegal immigration advocates were angry that a state agency would be trying to protect people who had broken the law. Some people feared the signs would be misread as indicating safe places to cross.
“Either you liked it or you hated it,” said Steve Saville, a veteran Caltrans spokesman. “It was an extraordinary measure to deal with an extraordinary situation.”
T-shirts and surfboards
Entrepreneurs liked it, sensing the makings of a good California souvenir. It helped that the image is public property, so no one had to pay Caltrans to use it. By the mid-1990s, the running family was turning up in gift shops throughout the state.
Bemused Caltrans employees from San Diego began seeing the image emblazoned on T-shirts, stickers, even tote bags, while traveling as far north as San Francisco and Monterey. In Laguna Beach the characters had silhouetted surfboards tucked under their arms, as if sprinting toward the waves.
Today, a hipster boutique on Los Angeles’ trendy Vermont Avenue stocks a couple of T-shirt versions, including one depicting the immigrants in place of the grizzly bear on the California state flag.
In San Diego, the characters are found on T-shirts and stickers sold in souvenir shops. They carry surfboards on mini-road signs that locals have posted in some beach communities.
Those who make and sell these items say they don’t dwell on the road sign’s history or the controversy surrounding illegal immigration. To such novelty T-shirt manufacturers as Jake Haughty, owner of San Diego-based Chingón Gear and Accessories, the sign is just a quirky slice of Southern California life.
“When I first moved here from the East Coast, I thought that was one of the funniest signs I had seen,” said Haughty, whose company prints a version of the characters carrying surfboards. “I don’t really know what it means, other than it’s just kind of funny.”
Still, the running family on a T-shirt doesn’t amuse everyone. When first-generation Mexican immigrant Juan Ruiz spotted one in a Los Angeles gift shop last year, he didn’t see local color or generic silhouettes. He saw himself.
Ruiz was riding in a smuggler’s car late one afternoon in 1987, headed for Los Angeles after crossing the border in San Diego. Suddenly the car screeched to a halt. The smuggler ordered everyone out onto what Ruiz thought was “a very wide avenue” and barked orders to run. Ruiz ran blindly, his heart beating in his throat.
“I didn’t know if I was coming or going,” said Ruiz, now 48 and in the country legally. “I lived it. So, when I see these things, they make me sad.”
People familiar with the hardships that drive many immigrants to leave home aren’t likely to laugh at the image on a T-shirt, said Jorge Mariscal, director of the Chicano studies program at UCSD.
Yet, for others, the desperate action the image depicts is so far removed from their own reality that it is incomprehensible, and the characters become mere cartoons.
“It depends on how privileged you are,” Mariscal said. “If you are pretty privileged, it is very amusing. It can only be received humorously if you don’t understand the dire situation of these people running across the freeway.”
The grandchild of immigrants, Mariscal was taken aback when he saw the image on a T-shirt in a La Jolla souvenir store. But he admits he was amused when he saw a different version on a T-shirt for sale more recently, this time during a festival at Chicano Park.
“I did perk up,” he said, “when I saw the one with the Pilgrims on it.”
In that version, the silhouettes are drawn in Pilgrim attire, with the father wearing a tall hat, a sly poke at the Mayflower passengers’ lack of permission from Massachusetts natives to move in. It’s just one way in which Latinos have turned the image into protest art, embracing the running family as their own.
In El Mercado, a cavernous three-story shopping center in East Los Angeles, a stall sells car window stickers of the original silhouettes with a logo that reads “Powered By Mexican.”
“It’s against la migra,” said sticker vendor Jesús Flores, who sells them mostly to second-generation kids in their late teens. “It’s like a sign of rebellion for them, like, ‘Let people say whatever they want (about us).’ ”
Latino artists have incorporated the figures into paintings, cartoons and other works, portraying them as Day of the Dead skeletons, even as religious figures.
Los Angeles painter Rosa M. Huerta-Williamson depicted them as a modern-day Jesus, Mary and Joseph in 1994 when she painted “La Sagrada Familia en Aztlan,” which features the characters running beneath a flaming sacred heart and cross.
“What I was trying to do was indicate that this could be the sacred family and we wouldn’t recognize them,” said Huerta-Williamson, who sold the painting to a Mexican-American professor and his wife. “As long as these people don’t have faces, white Americans don’t have to think about the fact that they have feelings.”
At the opposite end of the illegal immigration debate, others not so sympathetic have imbued the image with their own meaning.
A Web site called xtremerightwing.net sells T-shirts, coffee mugs, hats, aprons, even men’s boxers printed with a version of the running family almost true to the original, except the characters are being followed by a man with a gun.
“It’s an AK-47, which is typically associated with terrorists,” said John Martin, the Livermore entrepreneur who owns the site. “The man with the gun is not stalking the people; he is following them in. The point of the design is to illustrate how porous our borders are.”
Seen as metaphor
That a piece of highway safety art has come to mean so many things to so many different people indicates the image has achieved icon status, said UCLA’s Santa Ana, who studies how Latinos are portrayed in society and media.
“When it becomes iconic,” he said, “is when people pick up and run with it.”
Some people literally have picked up and run with a sign. At least one has been stolen. One woman recently called Caltrans to ask whether she could have one.
Caltrans isn’t giving them away. But there are no plans to replace stolen signs or to install new ones as the originals age.
Not long after the signs went up, Caltrans placed tall fences in the center divider on I-5 at Camp Pendleton and farther south to deter freeway crossers. And beginning in late 1994, the federal government started Operation Gatekeeper, which fenced off the border south of San Diego and has pushed the brunt of illegal immigration – and its casualties – east.
Highway maintenance crews sometimes find a belt used as a handhold dangling from a divider fence. But the Border Patrol can’t recall any immigrants having died crossing local freeways since the late 1990s. The road signs have become relics.
Peter Liebhold, a curator for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, said the museum wanted to acquire a sign for its permanent exhibit on transportation, which opened a year and a half ago, but curators found the 5-by-7-foot sign too large for the allotted space.
The Smithsonian settled on a photo of the sign instead. It hangs one floor down from the original 1813 Star Spangled Banner, the flag that inspired the national anthem.
“It transcends its local history,” Liebhold said. “Its importance is as a metaphor for undocumented immigration into the United States.”
Hood, the Caltrans artist, a modest man by nature, didn’t set out to create anything of the sort, just a road sign to help save lives.
Over the years, he has watched the transformation of his simple creation into souvenir, protest art, icon and metaphor with a mix of amazement and amusement, wishing only that some of the money being made from it today were generating funds for public safety.
Hood earns no royalties. He’s lost track of his original sketches. His wife filed them away, but he’s not sure where. Not that it bothers him. His road sign, or at least some version of it, isn’t hard to find.
“That was my baby,” he said. “It has its own life now.”